Archive | October, 2013

The Power of a Single Story

28 Oct

I think it’s fair to say that I am bamboozled – in the best way possible – by all the responses to my last post.  Thank you all so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and thinking about my words.  Yes, I was trying to make a point, but all I was really doing is what I try to do with the majority of my writing:  tell a story.  The timing of that post coincides perfectly with what I’d like to do next, which is focus on other peoples’ stories.

There’s no way to deny the power of a single story.  J.K. Rowling became one of the most beloved and influential authors in the world by scribbling one in cafés and on her old typewriter.  James Joyce’s Dubliners helped inspire the Irish independence movement and the Easter Rising of 1916.  Dreaming of heroes and bounty hunters, Flash Gordon, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, young filmmaker George Lucas wrote a series of scripts in the early 70s that would become Star Wars, the third highest-grossing film in the history of cinema.  A diary given to a Dutch girl on her thirteenth birthday would be found two years later and published as The Diary of Anne Frank, the quintessential warning against the Holocaust.

I don’t pretend that my stories (or most stories) are nearly as influential, but it’s clear that stories in general hold humanity enthralled.  That’s why, when I got to Spain this semester, I wanted to investigate the stories we hold dearest to us.  As part of an independent study, I’ve created Everyday Folktales, a blog of interviews in the vein of Humans of New York and other sites that aim to shine a spotlight on what at first seems ordinary.  The posts will have two questions, which anyone can answer:

  1. Tell me a story.
  2. Why did you pick that story?

I want to know what you think when I say the words Tell me a story.  Is it your favorite fairy tale from when you were younger?  A memory?  The plot of your favorite book?  Something you make up on the spot? Whatever it is, I firmly believe that the stories we tell ourselves and each other also reveal what is most human about each of us.

If you’re interested in participating, feel more than free to do the following:

  1. Write down, in no more than 750 words, the answers to both questions.  If you’d like, create a video of yourself telling the story to go along with it.
  2. Send it to epb3xw@virginia.edu.  If you’re friends with me on Facebook, feel free to message it to me that way.  Include a picture of you and a title for your story.
  3. The story will go up within a week, and you’ll get the enormous satisfaction of knowing that a) people get to listen to you, and b) you’ve helped me a good deal in my independent study

If you’re in Valencia, Spain with me right now, good news: you don’t even have to do the work of filming yourselves!  I’d love to have as many UVA program participants as possible become interviewees, so comment or shoot me an email if you’d like to join in.  I’m working on getting good filming equipment, and we can talk/film whenever is convenient for you.

Although there’s nothing on it yet, you’ll be able to check out Everyday Folktales in under a week, so stay tuned and keep it on your radar!

To cap things off, here’s Isabel Allende with my favorite TED talk.  “There’s a Jewish saying that I love,” she says at the very beginning.  “‘What is truer than truth?’  Answer: ‘the story.’”

 

An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Oct

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of living in Spain by grabbing bocadillos (thick, bready Spanish sandwiches) with my friends Sarah and Katherine.  We chatted with Rita, Katherine’s intercambio (language partner from Valencia), mouths full of bread, egg, and chicken.  The steady 2:00 sun filled the cafeteria of the Valencian psychology department with light.  We remarked on how much better our Spanish is getting: no longer do we have to fish around for quite so many words, or blush and stutter because we can’t get our point across.

Studying abroad has taught me two crucial skills thus far: to communicate openly and to know that I am stronger than I think.  Writing these posts has been a way of being frighteningly, cathartically open about my experiences.  Living in a country in which my native language isn’t the one emblazoned on street signs, splashed across advertisements, and spilling from people’s lips means that I treasure every moment of honest communication I can find.  Five weeks ago, I wondered whether I had it in me to stay here until December.  Now I know I can, and that knowledge has given me the peace of mind to discuss another subject that I feel is worth talking about.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses and other educational institutions has become such a topic du jour around sites like Jezebel and xoJane that it seems as if some people ignore it entirely.  Not so long ago, I would have counted myself among that number.  It happened, I knew, but surely not at my school – or if it did, it couldn’t occur frequently.  Then I came to Valencia, and during some of the most open, frank conversations I’ve ever had, I heard stories from almost every girl I met.  One got drunk at a party, went home with a boy but told him she didn’t want to have sex, and found him on top of her later.  Another was raped at a frat and then blacklisted.  The cases of assault and harassment seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.  With those stories filling my ears and humming in my blood, I decided to tell my own.

Almost six months ago, when joining an organization at my university that I very much enjoyed participating in, I found myself in need of fulfilling one last requirement to join.  As a prospective member, I had to get to know several long-term members in an informal setting.  The day before the semester was over, I needed one more meeting.   A man in the group had reached out to me previously, and since we shared interests in travel and foreign languages, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind chatting with me over coffee to nab that final requirement.  As the day wore on, the situation began to change.  First he pushed the meeting back to night.  Then he said he’d pick me up.  Then he said we could just go to his apartment.  Then there was no one else there.  It became clear to me that a casual conversation about all the places we’d traveled wasn’t what he had in mind.  Despite my repeated excuses, he continued kissing me, pinning me to the couch, and touching me.  It took me two hours to convince him that I wanted to go home.  I walked, shaking, up the steps to my dorm room, papers in hand.  In the ‘location’ space for the meeting slot on my sheet, he’d written that we’d talked in the library café.

It wasn’t rape, I kept telling myself over the following days.  It wasn’t rape.  I never said no, not exactly.  The other half of my brain kept picking out the flaws in those words.  He was twice my age, twice my size, and twice my strength.  He held a position of power over me, both physically and metaphorically, because he knew I needed one last meeting before the next day.  He probably thought that, as the only first-year female in my prospective group, I wouldn’t turn him down.  And just because it wasn’t rape didn’t mean that it didn’t signify anything.

I eventually went to the president of the organization to tell her exactly what had gone down.  Furious at what had happened to me, she wrote out a list of my resources.  Let me take a moment to say that, during this step of the process, I met a group of dynamic, intelligent individuals who took the time to constantly make sure I knew all my options.  I was fed waffles.  I was treated at the Pigeon Hole.  I was given legal advice and personal advice, all of which was sound.  But the president told me that the only way to expel this member from the organization was to hold a hearing and pass a vote.  Not only would this man have the chance to twist the scenario to his liking and reveal my name, I had no evidence.  This was a classic example of a he-said-she-said case: no evidence on either side, just bitter feelings and a gnawing sense that this had been wrong.

I then considered reporting him to the university.  In my research on that front, I found some truly disappointing statistics.  In the past twelve years, UVA hasn’t expelled a single student for sexual assault.  However, during the last academic term alone, it’s expelled six for violations of the Honor Code.  For those of you who aren’t students here, UVA expels students who break the Honor Code, as per the single-sanction rule.  The Honor Committee website defines an honor violation as follows: “a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  •  Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?”

Call me crazy, but sexual assault seems to be on par with, if not worse than, lying, cheating, or stealing.  To put things in perspective, let’s apply the same parameters to what happened to me.

  • Was an act of sexual assault/harassment committed?  Yes.  Again, let’s look at UVA’s resources.  The sexual violence page defines sexual assault as “any form of forced sexual contact.”  Compared to cases of rape and other forced sexual contact, I was lucky.  But did I want this contact?  No.
  • Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was sexual assault/harassment?  This one is a little harder.  Perhaps this student somehow interpreted my friendly behavior as a sign of interest.  I doubt that he took me to his apartment specifically thinking, “I am going to sexually harass this girl.”  But my reluctance and lack of verbal consent should have been a clear sign that I wasn’t interested.  A reasonable UVA student – hell, a reasonable human being – should know not to proceed from there.
  • Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?  I cannot imagine a response to this question other than “yes.”  Imagine a situation of sexual harassment or assault happening to someone you trust, and who trusts you.  Would you like that to happen?  No?  That’s answered, then.

I try not to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I am only a writer.  I am not a lawyer, nor am I an educator, nor am I any kind of authority on what kinds of laws govern sexual harassment/assault cases on university grounds.  I was not raped, just put in a situation that made me queasy.  And outside of the organization in which I am involved, I didn’t report this to anyone.  In some ways, that makes me part of the problem, and I wish I had taken further action six months ago.  But I know enough to say that all people – women and men both – who are enrolled at any educational institution deserve proper protection from that kind of situation.  If it does happen (and it will – I’m not naïve enough to imply that it can be eradicated entirely, even by the best schools), they should feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happened to them will be treated with the same gravity as lying, cheating, or stealing.  To any members of the UVA Sexual Misconduct Board who happen to read this post: you are on the right track, but you are not doing enough.  When students who have been courageous enough to report their stories (Kathryn, Annie, Anonymous Wahoo) consistently come away saying that they feel blamed and that their perpetrators are able to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, you may want to consider that the way that you’re evaluating cases could use some work.

I have come to love so many aspects of my university: lying on someone’s old quilt spread across the Lawn on a fall day, taking creative writing classes with the incredible English department, blissfully stuffing a Bodo’s bagel in my face.  Others I have come to hate, and none more so than this one.  The University of Virginia already has a centuries-old reputation for sweeping distasteful problems under the rug, such as misogyny and elitism.  It is now also gaining a reputation as an institution that fails to protect its own students in the most basic of ways.  Nearly ten years ago, Hook wrote a story called “How UVA Turns its Back on Rape.”  I’m still not sure it’s accurate to say things are much different.  Today, when debates over rape culture, allocation of blame, and nitpicking over sexual assault laws, semantics, and definitions run rife through the media, it is now more important than ever for UVA to tighten its standards.  A true community of trust, after all, does everything it can to foster that trust in every aspect of student life.

An aside: thank you to all the students I’ve met who have shared their stories with me.  You have all survived so much and are so incredibly strong.  You are my role models.

An Idiot’s Guide to Valencian Traffic

2 Oct

                

The Spaniards have a reputation for taking life at a pace that’s a little less frenetic than that of the U.S., and that was one of the aspects of Spanish culture that I most wanted to see for myself.  As someone who’s used to meticulously organized calendars, meeting deadlines, and rushing around Charlottesville or Richmond with a notebook in one hand and a caramel macchiato in the other, I was hoping for some relaxation.  And, for the most part, that’s what I found.  At 11:00 A.M., the avenues of Valencia are full of people stirring sugar into their morning tea and spreading olive oil over toast, chatting with their neighbors.  At 2:00, when the Mediterranean afternoon swallows up the city in a haze of sunlight and heat mirage, most stores are locked up tight for the siesta.  At any time of day, I see throngs of Valencians ambling down the central garden of the Río that runs the length of the city, pushing strollers or walking dogs so slowly that I wonder if they are actually moving.  Things aren’t so crazy here, and I like that.

                But when it comes to driving, all those notions go straight out the window.  Spaniards drive like they are participating in a nation-wide NASCAR race.  They zoom through narrow streets at speeds that make me cringe, constantly changing lanes and swerving around motorcyclists.  Stop signs and red lights seem to be a gentle suggestion to many rather than a command.  What’s even more unnerving is that plenty of people drive while texting or calling.  On my second day in Spain, a friend and I were walking along the nearby Gran Vía del Marqués del Túria when a young guy, texting and driving, ran a red light and rammed the car in front of him.  Both cars shuddered from the impact, and a thin plume of smoke rose from the first car’s hood.

“Holy shit,” I said (eloquent as ever).

Traffic continued to hurtle down the avenue.  The other driver opened her door and got out, surveying her smashed fender.  I fully expected obscenities to be shouted, accompanied by calls to the police.  But the two drivers only looked at each other, then at their ruined fenders, then back at each other.  The woman shrugged.  Then they both got back in their cars and drove away.

“Holy shit,” I said again, this time in awe.

Think it looks easy to get to this picturesque fountain in the middle of the street? Think again!

This nonchalant attitude towards automobile damage seems to extend to pedestrians.  Valencia has many wide, multi-lane streets split down the middle by small gardens or rows of palm trees.  This means that crossing the entire street can become a high-stakes adventure in two seconds flat.  The electronic walk signal or not has a habit of blinking once, then suddenly turning red.  Many are the days that I get stuck right in the middle of a busy street when the little green man on the signal disappears.  When that happens, traffic speeds towards me, splitting around me as if I am a rock in the middle of a river.  As you might imagine, this is somewhat unnerving.  My roommate Sally, who has nerves of steel, often rides her ValenBisi (a public bike you can pay to use and park in designated Bisi spots all over the city) inches away from these cars.  I, too, would like to get off my butt and Bisi around the city, but the thought of being smashed into a pile of gears and fleshy bits keeps me from actually renting one.

“One day you might learn how to drive here.  You never know.  I got used to it,” the UVA program director told me when I commented on it to her.

I am still not sure how to explain the discrepancy between most of Spanish life and driving, but I am now pretty sure of one thing: I will probably never drive a car in Valencia.  Getting over culture shock is one thing.  Getting behind the wheel, though, is another.